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On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

On Chesil Beach

I’ve heard a few people moan about Ian McEwan lately, and I’ve been struggling to fathom why. The most outrageous claim so far has been that On Chesil Beach “wasn’t long enough” to deserve the Booker. Now, really. The Prince, A Room of One’s Own and The Great Gatsby are all relatively short works, but no one would argue that their significance is diminished by their page count. McEwan’s latest offering may not have been good enough to win the Booker – by all accounts, there were at least two other books which were better – but it certainly provided a welcome antidote to all those bloated novels out there. There is as much skill, if not more, to writing an excellent novella as there is to writing an opus pushing 900 pages.

Incredibly, McEwan has proved that he can do both. He is a modern master of the slim volume (The Cement Garden remains, in my opinion, one of the greatest works of a then-debut author) and longer, virtuosic novels that merge complexity and style (Atonement). On Chesil Beach is an excellent example of the former. 

As in Atonement, the novella hinges on the power of a single word or action to change – or destroy – an entire life. It is 1962, and talented violinist Florence has finally married earnest history student Edward. Having overcome the social gap that divides their families (her father is a wealthy businessman and Oxford academic; his father struggles to make ends meet while caring for his brain-damaged mother), the couple embark on their honeymoon at a seaside hotel. But one thing stands between them and their longed-for future of wedded bliss: the wedding night. As Edward grows increasingly numbed by a terror of performance failure, Florence harbours a deeper dread of the sexual act itself. What happens over the course of a single evening will affect both characters in ways they would never have predicted.

I finished reading On Chesil Beach in a day (travelling from Brussels to Ghent, to be precise), but I continued to think about it for weeks. If one of the aims of literature is to create such lingering impressions, then the book’s modest length is in no way an obstacle to its impact. There’s nothing like a slim hardcover to tuck into your pocket on a train journey, and you could do far worse than to pack this one along next time. 

On Chesil Beach; Ian McEwan, Knopf 2007 166 pp. ISBN 978-0-676-97881-0



About Trilby

Born in Toronto but grew up all over the map thanks to her peripatetic journalist parents. After completing degrees from Oxford and the LSE, she spent a year working at a London auction house - but soon gave it up to become a writer. Her first novel - for children 9-14 - will appear in 2009 (Tundra Books). Meanwhile, a "grown-up" novel, set in Ceylon and Flanders in the 1930s, is in the works. Almost a year since receiving a 1910 Sigwalt letterpress, she has yet to decide where the gauge pins go.

11 comments on “On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

  1. Ariadne
    October 28, 2007

    I’ve never read any Mcewan, but maybe this would be a good place to start. Thanks, Trilby!

  2. Jenn
    October 28, 2007


    funny you and I should disagree on this, when we’ve agreed about most of the other books that we’ve chatted about.

    Chesil hinged on a premise that I found totally unbelievable – left me screaming at them to get on with it, and, when they couldn’t get on with it, to drink the rest of that horrible wine, have a chat about it, and try again once they’d got to know each other better.

    The suggestion Florence was cold because of childhood sexual abuse was cliched, lazily plotted and a short-cut for developing credible characters with comprehensible motivations. Maybe she was gay, maybe she just didn’t fancy him… oh no, her dad interfered with her. ZZZZZZ

    I’m with you in disliking bloated, baggy novels (apart from Moby Dick, and Anna Karenina, and… never mind) but no matter how short Chesil was, it could have done with being shorter. I like consise writing, I do – but with Chesil I can’t help but think the other option (that of silence, the delete key, the bottom drawer of the desk) would have been preferable.

  3. Trilby
    October 28, 2007

    Leila, I wouldn’t make OCB your first McEwan read…Atonement is far, far better!

    Jenn, I totally agree with you that OCB is flawed, and I think that McEwan-the-writer has it in him to do better. I don’t think that the premise is unbelievable, and I think that there’s a great deal of truth and poignancy in both Florence’s and Edward’s predicaments. But yes, Florence’s backstory was rather convenient and less than totally original. I definitely wouldn’t claim this to be the greatest book of the year, by any stretch. Still, your criticisms of it are far better placed than others that I’ve come across (ie. “it’s too short”).

    I think that it must be quite difficult for a writer at his stage of the game to turn out something that is at once different from what he’s done before (so people can’t just say “same old, same old”), but just as good, if not better…that’s also commercial enough to keep his editors happy…but literary enough to preserve his readership…and so on. Perhaps “The Cement Garden” was great because he wrote it without the baggage of Atonement/Saturday etc.?

  4. Eva
    October 28, 2007

    I am totally confused. I agree with both Jenn and Trilby. Is that possible?
    I read OCB on a boat trip and maybe I wasn’t focused enough, I think I didn’t quite “get” it. Maybe I should read it again…

  5. Ariadne
    October 28, 2007

    Tell you what, it is so encouraging that two people can have such totally different opinions about a book. Makes me feel much better about the idea of getting crap reviews myself.

  6. Emily
    October 28, 2007

    I’m a McEwan fan (though I haven’t dared read ‘Saturday’, which everyone says will put me off him for life) and will definitely treat myself to OCB now, Trilby. Cheers!

  7. Eva
    October 28, 2007

    Who said that “Saturday” will put you off for life and what could they possibly mean? It even tops (if that is ever possible) “Atonement”.

  8. marygm
    October 28, 2007

    I’m not particularly a McEwan fan although I have read Enduring Love and Atonement and admire them both. I can see that he writes well but he’s too ‘perfect’, distant, analytical for me to ‘love’ him. I feel as though he holds his characters out at arm’s length and turns them around to examine them closely but he doesn’t pull them in close to his heart.

  9. Jackie
    October 28, 2007

    My goodness, people certainly have strong feelings about this one, whether good or ill. I must read it & see who I agree with.

  10. lisaonsea
    November 6, 2007

    Just butting in to say here that I’m looking forward to OCB, as (hangs head in shame) I loved ‘Saturday’. I’ve not yet read ‘Atonement’.

    *Scuttles off to take cover.*

  11. Pingback: Ian McEwan – On Chesil Beach « Fyrefly’s Book Blog

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This entry was posted on October 28, 2007 by in Entries by Trilby, Fiction: general, Fiction: literary and tagged , , , , .



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